Made with just four simple ingredients and a few careful techniques, meringue is an elegant dessert shape shifter. Naturally gluten-free and dairy-free and relatively low in calories, meringues are a good choice when entertaining a group with dietary restrictions. They can be made several days in advance.
Meringue is made by vigorously whipping egg whites and sugar with a pinch of cream of tartar and salt until they are fluffy and glossy. Egg whites are made up roughly of 10 percent protein and 90 percent water. When beaten, the water-loving amino acids in the proteins bond to the water molecules and the water-phobic amino acids cling to the air molecules, creating a protein coating around the air bubbles. When beaten continually, the mixture will eventually become light and cloudlike. It is essential when separating the eggs that no trace of yolk contaminate the whites, and it's not recommended to use a plastic bowl, as even clean plastic can have trace amounts of oil or grease on the surface. Fat (the key component in yolks) impairs the protein's ability to form a stable network of bubbles that will hold its shape. The stability can be improved with the addition of an acid, usually cream of tartar, which helps expose the amino acids in the protein, creating a stronger structure. The slow addition of sugar while whisking creates a thick, glossy foam and gives the meringue even more resilience by helping to draw more proteins to the surface of the air bubbles.
Meringues have been around since the 1600s, so it's definitely possible to make them by hand. For those of us softened by modern technology, however, a stand mixer is exceptionally useful here. Depending on the power of your mixer, it can take several minutes of whipping before you have the desired consistency. It is possible to over-whisk the meringue, in which case the mixture will break and the liquid will separate out.
Once you master the process of whipping up meringue, the options are nearly endless. Whipped to glossy stiff peaks, it can be flavored with your choice of extracts or add-ins from vanilla to rum to instant coffee, chopped nuts or seedless jam. From there it can be made into simple meringue kisses by dolloping or piping tablespoons on a parchment-lined sheet tray (be sure to use parchment because they will adhere like superglue to an unlined tray). Or make a meringue layer cake by spreading out large spoonfuls in eight-inch circles onto the tray. Once baked, you can layer the meringue discs with whipped cream and any number of fillings from fresh fruit to chocolate hazelnut spread. The mixture can also be put into a piping bag with limitless creative potential. Pipe the mixture into nests and fill with ice cream or lemon curd and berries, a good way to put those separated egg yolks to good use.
Meringues are baked at a very low temperature for a relatively long time. At the end of baking time, turn the oven off and leave the door closed until the meringues are completely cool. Resist the urge to peek, as this step is essential in creating a crisp texture. Once at room temperature, the meringues are ready to enjoy or can be stored in an airtight container for up to five days, making them a perfect make-ahead dessert.
3 large egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
A pinch of salt
¾ cup sugar (preferably superfine or blitzed in a food processor)
1 teaspoon vanilla or liqueur of choice
Let the egg whites sit out for 30 minutes to come to room temperature. Beat the egg whites, cream of tartar and pinch of salt in a mixing bowl until foamy. Increase the mixing speed to high, then slowly add in the sugar in a very thin stream until stiff glossy peaks form. Turn down the speed and add the vanilla. Fold in up to one cup optional additional ingredients gently by hand so as not to deflate. Delicious choices include ¼ cup seedless jam or cooled melted chocolate, or up to one cup of chopped nuts or mini chocolate chips.
Spread or pipe into desired shapes and bake in a 200 degree oven for 1 1/2- 2 ½ hours, depending on size. Turn off the oven and allow the meringues to cool completely before removing.
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest
¼ teaspoon kosher salt (use less if using salted butter)
1 large egg plus three egg yolks
cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
Combine the sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of the food processor and blitz until the lemon zest is ground into the sugar. This step is optional but adds depth of flavor. Combine the sugar-lemon zest mixture in a nonreactive saucepan with the salt, egg and egg yolks and lemon juice. Place the saucepan over medium-low heat and bring to a low boil, whisking constantly until thickened, about five to six minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter one tablespoon at a time, until emulsified. Put the lemon curd through a strainer if desired (to remove any clumps of egg that may have formed) and into a bowl, then cover with plastic wrap. Allow to come to room temperature, then refrigerate for up to one week, or freeze for several months.